The United States has started to communicate with Iran over the detention of American citizens, White House national security adviser Jake Sullivan said on Sunday.
“We have begun to communicate with the Iranians on this issue, yes,” Sullivan told CBS’ “Face the Nation,” calling the detention of Americans a “complete and utter outrage.”
“Our strong message to the Iranians will be that it we will not accept a long-term proposition where they continue to hold Americans in an unjust and unlawful manner. It will be a significant priority of this administration to get those Americans safely back home,” he said.
The Iranian Foreign Ministry denied any direct communication with the US government on the detainees had taken place. Ministry spokesperson Saeed Khatibzadeh said some messages were exchanged via the Swiss Embassy in Tehran, which represents US interests in the country.
“Our policy is to secure freedom of our countries’ prisoners in the United States and we are ready for this issue, but we have had no direct talks with the United States,” Khatibzadeh said in a televised interview Sunday.
Iran, which has a history of jailing foreigners and dual citizens and using them as bargaining chips, is currently detaining a number of Americans on trumped-up espionage charges.
The Iranian-Americans held by Iran include conservationist Morad Tahbaz, businessman Siamak Namazi and his father, former UNICEF official Baquer Namazi. In mid-January Iranian authorities arrested another dual citizen, businessman Emad Sharghi.
“It will be a significant priority of this administration to get those Americans safely back home,” Sullivan said.
Robert Levinson, a retired FBI agent who vanished nearly 14 years ago in Iran, is believed to have died in regime custody. In December the previous administration sanctioned two senior Iranian officials over Levinson’s kidnapping, detention and “probable death.”
The purported talks come amid a deepening standoff over the 2015 nuclear agreement, which President Joe Biden has said the United States will rejoin if Iran resumes full compliance under the deal. Tehran has insisted Washington lift sanctions before it reverses its violations.